The horror of the Great Plague of London

London was hit by the Great Plague in 1665 but in fact it was one of a succession of pestilences that overtook the English capital. In the years 1563, 1593, 1603, 1625 and 1636, there were plagues with similarly devastating consequences.

The 1625 plague saw thousands of red crosses painted on the doors of the infected. These victims couldn’t leave and nobody was permitted to enter. This was quarantine seventeenth century style. And according to one pamphlet of the time – the plague crosses struck terror into the population:

Foure thousand Red-Crosses have frighted the Inhabitants in a very little time, but greater is their number who have beene frighted and fled out of the City at the setting up of those CrossesEngland’s Lord Have Mercy Upon Us – Thomas Dekker

The 1665 has come down to us very vividly for two key reasons. One was that the journalist and author Daniel Defoe wrote a powerful and gripping account of it a few years later. And the other is that the 1665 Great Plague was followed a year later in 1666 by the Great Fire – which destroyed a large part of London.

What amazed people at the time was that London’s population continued to grow rapidly despite the terrible plagues. This was due to a steady influx of people from the countryside into the city and also – as with Coronavirus – the ability of the wealthier to avoid the worst of the plague.

Basically, richer families continued to expand and reproduce while poorer families bore the main brunt of each wave of plague. Some saw this rather cruelly as a natural order of things.

The 1665 plague happened in the years following the end of the Cromwellian Protectorate and the Restoration of King Charles II. We’re often led to believe that these were years of jolly revelry and colour. But in fact more most Londoners this was a period of plague, fire, poverty and war.

I’ve been on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs documentary series talking about the scandals that have enveloped various kings in history.

This was the programme on Charles II and his less than gallant handling of the Great Plague in London. Basically, he fled the city as thousands of Londoners perished of the bubonic plague – a truly grim way to go!

American “lunatic” shames the British into reform!

My mother worked in one of London’s many psychiatric asylums that were all closed at the end of the 1980s. She was a nurse at Claybury Hospital in north east London. The Victorian complex of buildings was set in beautiful grounds with two big churches, a cinema and other facilities.

There was a combination of locked wards and open wards. I remember as a child seeing patients roaming round outside in their dressing gowns dosed up to the eyeballs with lithium.

By the late nineteenth century, Britain had begun a long journey of trying to understand mental illness and treat it with compassion as opposed to fear and hatred. Up until the mid-1800s, mental patients were pretty much classified as prisoners. Bethlem Hospital was where the city’s insane ended up.

Chained to walls or restrained in other ways. Even as early as 1598, a committee appointed to look at the workings of Bethlem damned the place as loathsome.

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

William Norris in chains sparked MPs into action

Always eager to raise money, Bethlem used to charge members of the public to come and gawp at its inmates.

By the eighteenth century, it was making about £400 a year from letting anybody in who fancied a laugh at the expense of the insane.

One observer, Ned Ward, said people visited Bethlem much as they’d go and see lions in the zoo. Even those who had family or friends at Bethlem had to pay the same amount as inquisitive strangers to see them.

One of the people who admitted to popping in for a look around wrote a damning account:

One of the side-rooms contained about ten patients, each chained by one arm or leg to the wall, the chain allowing them merely to stand up by the bench or form fixed to the wall or to sit down again. The nakedness of each patient was covered by a blanket-gown only.

Things came to a head when members of the public saw one particular man, William Norris, restrained with iron bands to a wall – and apparently kept like this for years. The year was 1814 and attitudes were slowly starting to change. Norris found himself being quizzed by members of parliament who dropped in to see this pathetic sight.

So incensed were parliamentarians that they set about freeing Norris and reforming the system. However, the governors of Bethlem put up a spirited fight against these external meddlers in their affairs spending an eye-watering £600 to oppose the bill for regulating asylums.

Ever wondered what Londoners died of in the year 1791?

One book in my collection of antiquarian guides to London dates from 1791 – and in the appendices details what Londoners in that year died of.  If any of you are medics, I need your help working out what some of these illnesses are.

I’m aware that “lethargy” meant a stroke for example. But what about “rising of the lights” as a cause of death. Sounds very dramatic – if it’s painless, I’d like to go that way please.

So – what did Georgian Londoners die of in 1791?  By far the biggest cause is “Consumption” – which could mean tuberculosis but also other chest related diseases. Not surprising given that TB was incurable.

Also, the air was thick with poisonous fumes from domestic chimneys and factories located right in the heart of the city, giving rise to other pulmonary diseases. “Convulsions” account for 4,485 deaths and various fevers swept away 2,769 Londoners including Malignant Fever, Scarlet Fever, Spotted Fever and “Purples”.

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot - James Gillray cartoon

Gout was like a devil gnawing at your foot – James Gillray cartoon

Gout only accounted for 58 people – but it was a very common problem at the time. Large scale port wine drinking didn’t help matters. Gentlemen of distinction could be seen hobbling in agony round the city and would have to prop their legs up on an Ottomon to get the acid flowing out of their feet. Leaving their club or the coffee house, they’d need a sedan chair to take their pained bodies back home.

One of you doctors can describe Headmouldshot, Horseshoehead and Water in the Head that struck 44 individuals. Measles was still a killer – as was flu – but how on earth did eleven people succumb to “Evil”!!?  “Surfeit” I assume means eating way too much and keeling over. And “ague” is malaria in modern parlance – a condition which prevailed with undrained marshes, especially to the east of London and in Essex.

Infant mortality was horrendous in the 18th century.  The biggest number of deaths in 1791 were under two years of age by a big margin – 6,138. The next largest figure is 2,086 between 40 and 50 years of age. Contrary to what you might assume, plenty of people made it into their fifties and sixties and 460 people died that year between 80 and 90 years of age. Seven were a hundred years old while one was reputedly 113 years old.

There were 35 executions in Middlesex and Surrey, which covered much of what is now called London. In 1791, pirates were still being put to death at Wapping. The gallows were deliberately placed at the low-water mark to be viewed by incoming boats. However, the guidebook says the habit of leaving the body to be washed over by three river tides had been discontinued.